Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Wondermints Shine on Brian Wilson's SMiLE

I used to fumble around Amazon quite irresponsibly, and sometimes, for better or for worse, a CD would just appear in my mailbox.  I would immediately rip these offerings into the MP3 player I began to use around this time, too, and I was pretty disciplined about keeping it updated with my latest acquisitions.  I soon felt naked walking to UNT campus without 300 albums floating around in my backpack.  In 2005, when The WondermintsMind if We Make Love to You unexpectedly showed up, I had hardly listened to it when, on one particularly pleasant fall afternoon, this incredible ditty cut through the fog. I don't think I have stopped singing it since.

If you’ve followed the blog at all, it is no secret that I am an advocate of progressive rock, but I hope that I don’t come across as insular. Prog is attached to an obvious (perhaps adolescent) technical virtuosity that I connected with at a particularly impressionable moment in my life, but I deeply admire the similar and perhaps more subtle virtuosic potentials of melodic rock and power pop. In the hands of lesser musicians, pop songwriting can come off as bland and formulaic, but The Wondermints have "that special something." Although there are great individual performances on Mind if We Make Love to You, they always stand in service to the enthralling melodies and harmonies that saturate each song.

Another Way by Wondermints on Grooveshark

The now-ubiquitous influence of The Beatles, particularly during their studio period, makes it easy to take for granted the kind of genius that is involved in album like Mind if We Make Love to You. In the 60s, bands were scrambling to keep up with Lennon and McCartney's innovations, and very few could compete. The Beach Boys stepped up to the plate, however, when they released the masterpiece Pet Sounds in response to the Beatles sprawling artistic vision.  The album was so ambitious that it cracked the foundations of the band.  Smile, the eccentric 1966 follow-up to Pet Sounds and Brian Wilson's legendary "teenage symphony to God," was so orchestral (maybe even progressive) that the Beach Boys refused to complete it, sending Wilson into a decades-long depression.

Although the Wondermints have not released any new material in quite awhile, they have remained active, particularly as collaborators with a recovered Brian Wilson. Wilson resurrected the Smile (now rendered as SMiLE) project in 2004, and keyboardist/singer Darian Sahanaja played a role in piecing together and arranging the incomplete segments. The final result, in which the Wondermints acted as Wilson’s backing band, revealed Wilson’s distinctive creativity and vision, as well as Sahanaja's talent.  The band was subsequently absorbed into the immense, but necessary, 20-piece SMiLE touring group. I was fortunate enough to see Wilson on this tour, and I distinctively remember him referring to Sahanaja as his “musical director.” Not a shabby designation, considering Wilson essentially played the same role in the band that produced some of the finest pop music of the 60s.

The live performances of SMiLE garnered some attention, and brought the brilliance and imagination of Brian Wilson into the awareness of the 21st century audience. As amazing as SMiLE is, however, I find that I revisit Mind if We Make Love to You more often. It’s a go-to album that reminds me what it is that I like about consistent, well-crafted songwriting.

Listen by Wondermints on Grooveshark

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